Facing Forward

“The truth will set you free.”   (John 8:31 NIV)

We do not have to surrender to the fear-breathing monster that lives in Mom’s mind. With the Lord’s help, we can fight it. But before we fight it, we have to face it.

I come to my parents’ house almost every day now. And almost every day, I see the quality of their lives slip a little farther downhill. I feel myself sliding too, toward confusion and panic and smothering sadness.

Their days have changed dramatically.  Mom, formerly a perfectionist in the area of housekeeping, sits for hours at the kitchen table or on the loveseat in the den, smoking cigarettes, staring at the television.  Dad used to spend the daylight hours working, outside if possible, on the lawn or the house or his vegetable garden. Now he sits in the house watching Mom watch TV.

Even more distressing than their lack of activity is the drastic alteration in Mom’s appearance. She used to manicure her fingernails weekly; now they’re long, jagged, dirty.  She wears the same clothes for days at a time.  Her blouse is usually stained with food.  And worse, much worse, is the way her clothes smell. Is she no longer aware of needing to go to the bathroom? Or is she just choosing not to go?

This morning while I pour my coffee, I’m shocked to hear Dad comment, with a distinct edge in his voice, that Mom takes a bath only when he insists, and sometimes not then.

“And when was the last time you washed your hair?” he asks her.

Marveling at Dad’s lack of tact, but happy he’s finally speaking up, I take my place at the table, between them as usual.

Mom doesn’t answer. Instead she reaches slowly toward the ashtray and picks up her cigarette.  With her elbow planted on the table, she holds the unfiltered stub between index finger and thumb.

Then WHAP!  Her other hand slams palm down on the table.  Coffee sloshes out of my cup. The fire falls from the cigarette and lands on the tablecloth.  Instinctively Dad reaches over and puts it out with his hand.

“Stop talking about my hair!” Mom shouts.  “My hair is fine!”

As I mop up my spilled coffee, my almost bald father glares across the table at Mom, who is glaring back at him from beneath her oily gray-brown hair.  

Today is the first time I’ve seen Mom as loud and aggressive as she was a couple of weeks ago in Colorado. But maybe she acts that way more often than I realize. I wonder yet again what happens when I’m not here.

I’ve asked Dad, but only in the most general terms: “How are things, Daddy?” His answer is always the same. “Fine. We’re doing fine.”

Now he rubs his palm, sighs, and turns back to the TV.

This isn’t “facing it.”

Something has to change.

Lord, please help me face the truth. Things aren’t ok. Mom and Dad aren’t fine. And I’m afraid—of what these changes might mean, what a doctor might say, what we might have to do to take care of Mom, what might happen next if we just keep pretending. So many might’s. But here is more truth: You are powerful—beyond all uncertainty, beyond all my fear. Beyond human knowledge and human strength. Thank You for shining your mighty light on the truth, Father. Help me believe that it will set us free. 

Right Now

“They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back.  I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble.”    (Jer. 31:9)

One lovely evening and one fine day.That’s all the grace Alzheimer’s gave us. At least for now.

What will happen tomorrow is anybody’s guess. I must keep my attention on today. Already I understand that right now must be my focus.  And I thank the Lord that “right now” is His specialty. His favorite place to work.

Right now, it’s time to get home. I’m driving this time. Very fast. 

The tension erupted this morning as soon as Mom awakened. By the time we loaded the car, she would scarcely tell Mark goodbye. She wasn’t speaking at all to me or Dad.

As I drove out of the parking lot of Mark’s apartment, I looked back at him. Standing beside the two lawn chairs where we planned to sit and have coffee, he waved, then raised his arms over his head and put his hands together, palms touching, fingers pointing straight up.

A few miles down the road, Mom started finding things to complain about. The car was too small, she wanted a different shirt on, she couldn’t see the sun through all those clouds. Mostly, though, she wanted to go home. She insisted. She demanded. She ordered. When normal volume brought no results, she began shouting.

I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to explain that home is exactly where we’re going.

I’ve tried being nice. “Oh, Mom, look! The mountains are behind us now. Texas is just ahead!”

I’ve tried the truth. “It’s a long way, Mom, but I’ll get us there as fast as I can.”

I’ve tried lying. “We’re almost there. Why don’t you try to take a nap and when you wake up, we’ll be home!”

Dad has tried begging. “Please, honey, don’t yell. We’re going straight home right now. Ok? Please don’t shout.”

And he’s tried anger. “Marie! Stop that! You know it takes a long time to get home from Colorado. Just be quiet and ride.”

Right now we’re trying tunes. I thought maybe soft music would calm Mom, but she just kept yelling that I shouldn’t be in her car and I better leave the radio alone. So the music is for Dad and me. I’ve turned the volume up and sometimes we sing along. Not to annoy Mom—at least I hope that’s not our purpose. I admit I feel furious with her. And clearly she’s furious with us. But I’m acting out of desperation, not anger. I think.

Gasoline, snacks, a bathroom, though Mom refuses to go.  The shouting from the back seat at last becomes silence. Dad stares straight ahead. I keep driving.  Numb, I guess. Numb to fatigue and noise and the anxiety that drums on my mind like tires on pavement. Me too, Mom. All I want is to get home.

Hours later, I’m unlocking their front door. As I help Dad unload the car, I look around their house, dark and stuffy in the middle of the night. 

Dad seems to read my mind. “I’m fine,” he says. “You got us here non-stop.  We’ll be fine now. You go ahead home.”

Fine? I don’t believe him. How can I just drive away and leave him? 

But I do.

Remind me, Father, that Your love is sufficient to care for my parents.  Sweet Jesus, You promised never to leave us or forsake us.  I believe You.  Help my unbelief.  Holy Spirit, guide my father to the necessary things – rest, nourishment, the comfort of the familiar.  Your peace is hard to find tonight, Lord.  Yet I thank You, because I know peace will come.

Ups and Downs

Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.        (Neh. 8:10)

It’s over. I think we’re ok again.

Yesterday’s angry stranger, the one who looked just like Mom, is nowhere to be seen. This morning, the real Mom came out of the bedroom smiling, saying she was ready for breakfast.

So here we are, Mom and Dad and Mark and I, at one of Mark’s favorite diners. The smell of bacon and pancakes and the weight of the thick white coffee mugs are comforting to me. 

Again Mom doesn’t order; she just looks at Dad. Still, she’s smiling! The waitress pours another round of coffee. Mom eats her eggs slowly. She has a little trouble with the slice of tomato, so I cut it for her. 

I was certain we’d be headed back to Texas this morning. Instead, we set out on a drive through the Poudre River canyon. As we make our way up the winding road, some instinct tells me to keep Mom awake and alert. Beside her in the back seat, I maintain a continuous chatter, pointing to the fading blooms of miner’s candles beside the road and marveling at the pine and fir and juniper, their trunks twisted and gnarled among the boulders beside the river. 

We stop occasionally and walk a bit, Dad and Mark tramping ahead with boundless vigor. I hang back with Mom, walking slowly, resting often. Much of our talk consists of one of us saying, “Oh look!  Isn’t that beautiful?” to which the other replies, “Oh, yes!  It’s lovely!” That seems to be the full extent of Mom’s conversational ability, but she seems genuinely happy and I relax in her pleasure.

The only difficult incident of the day occurs when Mom and I make a visit to the bathroom on one of our stops. From the stall next to her, I can tell she’s using copious amounts of toilet paper. I ask if she needs help. 

I’m amazed to hear relief in her voice as she answers, “Oh, yes, do you mind?”

Disguising my dismay so as not to embarrass her, I help Mom clean herself. But I needn’t have worried. Showing not a hint of embarrassment, she’s like a child who knows she can rely on me to make things right.

I spend the rest of the afternoon smiling on the outside, cringing on the inside. In spite of my morning delight, we are most certainly not “ok.” I’m torn between the absurdity of pretending nothing is wrong and the despair of acknowledging the problems I’m seeing—little ones like not being able to cut tomatoes, and big ones like incontinence.

By evening, though, I’ve reminded myself that I can fight the unknown enemy. We can identify the source of Mom’s confusion and then consider our options to eliminate or at least diminish it.  

Now is the time to enjoy the last few hours of this fine day. Let tomorrow bring what it may. The Lord will be with us.

I’m never alone, Father. I’ve reminded myself of that so often these last two days. No matter where we find ourselves— mountains or plains, river or desert, in sunshine or rain—You are already there, waiting to answer the prayers we lift to You. Remind me, please, that I always have joy, because I always have You. You make me strong. Thank You, Lord.

Move Forward

Let your eyes look straight ahead, fix your gaze directly before you.  Make level paths for your feet and take only ways that are firm.      (Prov. 4:25-26)

Still in my son’s little apartment in Colorado, I sit in the recliner, close my eyes, and try not to listen as Mark settles my parents in his bedroom.  He’ll sleep on the floor tonight.  I’ll be on the sofa.

I want quiet and calm as I go over the events of this day: Mom’s confusion and hostility when we arrived, my panic and fear as we fought to keep her inside the apartment, and the miracle of the lovely evening we just spent with Mark—the laughing, happy, normal evening.

Normal. I could use a little more of that, please, Lord.

When Mark emerges from his room, I see him holding the Lord’s answer in his arms: laundry. The basket he carries is full to overflowing with towels and sheets, T-shirts and running socks and blue jeans. He almost loses the whole load when he bends to pick up the detergent.

Peace can be found doing ordinary things.

“Got any quarters, Mom?” Mark doesn’t even have the good grace to look sheepish, just grins and jerks his head toward the door. “Almost midnight.  Laundry time.”

The door closes behind us and I know I must tell him. But how? We walk together past a line of doors and windows that open on rooms where, I imagine, life hasn’t changed much from yesterday to today.

In the darkest hours of the night, in the steamy little laundry room at the end of the apartment sidewalk, I talk to Mark. While the washer churns a super-size load of his jeans and flannel shirts, I lean against the coin-operated dryer and describe the nightmare we lived while we waited for him to come home from work.  I can’t hold back my tears.

When Mark was a little boy, he never admitted to crying. He maintained his eyes were leaking. They leak again tonight.

I’m still talking when the buzzer sounds on the dryer. While I fold and stack, Mark stands and listens. My words tumble over each other like rocks pushed downstream in a fast-running river.

At length, the torrent slows and Mark has a chance to speak.  He asks if he should drive us back to Texas. Suggests I start making notes for when we talk to the doctor.  “You’ll see someone right away, Mom, right?  If you’re going to fight this, you need information.” 

No trace of panic in his tone or his words, just that look in his eyes I recognize so easily.   I saw it when he climbed his first tree, wrestled with his older brothers, filled out college applications—that look that saw past  the circumstances, the obstacles, the pain, or whatever else stood between him and his goals.  I find strength in that look. 

Thank You, Father, for showing me the way forward. We’re not stuck in darkness; we can move toward the light, one goal, one step at a time. Help me focus my efforts on what is possible. I know I can get information. With information I can find out what kind of help we need. Once I know what we need, I can go after it. I ask for courage and determination and insight as I begin this quest.  With You, no mission is impossible.